Neighbors keep flag flying on Canonsburg street

June 13, 2014
George Yates, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, is shown near his home on Woodland Road in Canonsburg. In the background is the traffic island he maintains. It includes a new flagpole and flags. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Since the 1950s, motorists traveling on Woodland Road in Canonsburg have passed a traffic island in the middle of the road where an American flag now stands.

For 25 years, the island, an oval strip more than 40 feet long and 4 feet wide, has been neatly kept by a group of neighbors, led by Frank Scenna, who live nearby.

Scenna installed a flag in 2009 but took it down last month for repairs.

George Yates, 89, a U.S. Army veteran who earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart during World War II, lives yards from the island and noticed the flag was gone.

“The flag was used, and it never really stood straight. I took it down to have a friend of mine repair it, but he was busy and hadn’t gotten to it,” said Scenna. “Mr. Yates said, ‘Where’s the flag?’”

Last week, Yates purchased a new American flag and a flagpole to replace the old one. Scenna, Yates’ son, George Jr., and neighbors Doug McKenery and Rob Adamson installed it in time for Flag Day.

The flag connects Yates to another time and another place, and to veterans who have served and soldiers now serving their country.

Yates was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on March 29, 1945, in Cebu, Philippine Islands, during an advance along a heavily mined road.

Yates was a member of a group providing security for a group of mine detector operators and demolition men who were locating and disarming mines in front of a column of tanks.

Soon after the advance started, enemy crossfire killed two men and seriously wounded three others. It was impossible for the tanks to move forward without crushing the wounded and dead men, so Yates and another member of the squad crawled under the crossfire to the wounded men and dragged them from the path of the tanks. They went back and moved the dead men to the side of the road, and the tanks rolled forward and neutralized the enemy positions.

Later that day, Yates was wounded in a bomb blast and was flown to Latay, Philippines, where he spent seven weeks in a military hospital recovering from his injuries. He was 20 years old.

The flag also reminds him of his brother, Joseph Yates, who was killed in action Nov. 11, 1943, while flying a mission over Germany.

Yates never knew the details of his brother’s death until he was contacted in 2004 by Capt. Kyle Hatzinger, then a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who was writing a paper about the army’s casualty notification during World War II. Hatzinger’s great-uncle was a co-pilot in the 448th Bombardment Group, to which Joseph Yates was assigned.

According to Hatzinger’s research, Yates was aboard a plane that lost an engine when it was hit by gunfire while flying over Minden, an industrial town in Germany. The plane flew on and dropped two 1,000-pound bombs, then tried to make a crash landing in a field near Billerbeck in northwest Germany. A third 1,000-pound bomb aboard the plane detonated during the attempt, killing all the men on board.

In 1950, the remains of Yates and the others were flown to the United States and a memorial service was held in Rock Island, Ill.

“I regret that my mother and father never knew what transpired on that mission,” said Yates, who attended Canon-McMillan High School, where he was a runnerup in the 1943 PIAA wrestling championships at 145 pounds, and then attended Valley Forge Military Academy and College. He went on to serve as a vice president for PNC Bank. “Until (Hatzinger) did that research, we had no idea what happened.”

Which brings us back to the red, white and blue flag in the island on Woodland Road.

Another resident who saw the neighbors working on the island contacted state Sen. Tim Solobay to obtain a Pennsylvania state flag, which now flies below the U.S. flag. And motorists driving by have stopped to make donations for the cost of the flag and island upkeep, including mulch, paint and decorative rocks.

“I enjoy how Mr. Yates enjoys the flag. He’s our war hero in the neighborhood,” said Scenna. “I have a flag in my backyard, and my dad was a veteran, and he had a flagpole.”

Flag Day was first observed at Stony Hill School in Wisconsin on June 14, 1885, when 19-year-old teacher Bernard J. Cigrand placed a 10-inch, 38-star U.S. flag in a bottle on his desk and asked his students to write about its significance.

In 1916, when Cigrand was 50, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation that called for a national observance of Flag Day, and in 1949 – four years after Yates pulled three soldiers to safety – President Harry S. Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14 as National Flag Day.

“That flag means a lot,” said Yates. “It’s dedicated to the veterans who have served our country. Whatever our differences are in this country, we can all agree upon that. We don’t ever want to forget.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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